“Just call me Norman Dale,” Cronin cracked Tuesday during a telephone interview with The Times, referring to the coach in the movie “Hoosiers” who was perpetually confronted by a depleted roster.
The fifth-ranked Bruins resumed workouts Monday with only six scholarship players available, the balance of the team expected to return from COVID-19 protocols by Sunday. Cronin is easing his players back into basketball activities, with conditioning taking precedence over any sort of formal practice.
“There’s going to be people that come back on Sunday that I haven’t seen since Dec. 15,” Cronin said, alluding to a layoff that is about to enter its third week, “so imagine how out of shape they’ll be. Fifteen days of nothing.”
The Bruins’ problems started Dec. 15 when Cronin went into COVID-19 protocols, leading to the cancellation of a game that night against Alabama State out of an abundance of caution. Two days later, the team paused basketball activities and canceled a showdown against North Carolina as the situation deteriorated.
“I got sick, so the red flag went up,” Cronin said, “we had a couple of guys coughing, so they tested them and that started the chain reaction for us.”
One season after no one on the team tested positive on the way to the Final Four, the virus ravaged the roster, leaving the Bruins unable to play. UCLA’s final nonconference game against Cal Poly was canceled and Pac-12 games against No. 9 Arizona and Arizona State were postponed.
The Bruins (8-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) also need to make up a game against Washington that was initially forfeited by the Huskies in early December before the Pac-12 revised its rules, requiring teams to reschedule games if possible. Cronin said he’s waiting to hear from conference officials when those games might be played.
UCLA’s next scheduled game is on the road against Stanford on Jan. 6, but that game is also in doubt after the Cardinal were forced to withdraw from the championship of the Diamond Head Classic because of their own COVID-19 issues.
One factor that could accelerate the Bruins’ return is new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that has shortened the isolation and quarantine periods from 10 to five days if certain conditions are met.
Some have suggested the college basketball season will continue to be disrupted unless conferences adopt rules similar to the NFL, which has abandoned weekly testing while shifting toward a symptom-based model.
“I don’t have answers to what the country should do, what college basketball should do,” Cronin said. “You have to do everything you can to stay as safe as possible, but I don’t know the answers. I think right now everybody’s trying to figure it out, including the people who run our country. They’re in the midst of changing guidelines. My thing is, stay focused on the health and safety of my team and get ready to play.
“It’s going to take us awhile because injury is my biggest concern. You start asking guys to play at a certain level before their body’s ready to play, that’s the biggest concern for me, getting back to where we can safely practice full speed so we can play full speed. But we’ve got some time; hopefully we don’t have any setbacks.”
Cronin acknowledged the possibility that unless things change, the NCAA tournament might need to be staged in a bubble like the one that was formed last spring in Indianapolis.
“It depends on how COVID will be treated by March,” Cronin said. “Like if things are the way they are today, if there’s going to be testing, you have to bubble or it could get crazy.”
Among the Bruins who have tested positive, Cronin said, most were asymptomatic. Those who have evaded the virus have been given instructions to keep it that way.
“My motto to them is, come to the gym, bubble wrap, go home and then come back to the gym, don’t go anywhere else,” said Cronin, whose team has not played since defeating Marquette on Dec. 11.
The mood among those who have returned to conditioning has been lighthearted, Cronin said, everyone pleased that they’re nearing a return to games, even if they don’t know exactly when that will come.
“We were kidding around that we were ‘Hoosiers,’ we should get Hickory jerseys,” Cronin said, referring to the fictional high school team in the movie. “It’s great to get back in the gym and we’re looking forward to getting everybody back in there and hopefully be able to string a couple of months of basketball together where we can play uninterrupted.”